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The Table Video

Soong-Chan Rah

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice, Love, and Humility in Troubled Times

Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism, North Park Theological Seminary
June 15, 2017

We live in a world that is changing at a rapid rate. We are experiencing profound changes in the demographics of Christianity alongside the trajectory of a more multi-cultural and complex American society. There are also historical challenges that need to be addressed. In this session we will examine how the lost discipline of lament (through the lens of the book of Lamentations) could provide a theological corrective of love and humility that calls for justice in troubled times.


Soon-Chan Rah: I wanna introduce the themes of lament but I wanna give a little bit of background about why lament is an important discipline that’s been lost especially when we’re talking about love and humility, and the absence of lament exasperates and the absence of lament exasperates our absence of love and humility.

Admittedly, the background for this comes from my latest book or my second-to-the-latest book, the new book just came out in July, but the book before that, Prophetic Lament was a commentary on the Book Of Lamentations, and one of the motivations to write a book on lamentations was finding the absence of lament or the discipline of lament in any of our church context. So there was a study done by Denise Hopkins at Wesley Seminary and she was examining the worship practices of the liturgical traditions in America, that would be the Catholic church, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, Methodists, etc.

And these traditions are guided by a particular book to read certain passages and to sing certain hymns and to have certain psalms read, and what Dr. Hopkins found was that the lament psalms, the psalms that talk about suffering were conspicuously often times left out of these liturgical churches. So you would get to a lament psalm and just kind of skip over it to get to the happier psalms that follows after that.

There was another study done by Glen Pemberton and he was looking not at the liturgical traditions but a more Presbyterian and Baptist hymnals, and he was asking the questions about how much do we lament in our hymnals? or have lament as a disciplinary hymnals. He says that our of the 150 psalms in the Old Testament, 60 percent of those psalms fall into the category of praise and worship, praising God for all the good things he has done, celebratory types of psalms. But 40 percent of our psalms in the Old Testament are psalms of lament that talk about suffering and pain, but he notes that if you look at the typical Baptist or Presbyterian hymnal, 80 to 85 percent of our hymns are psalms or hymns of celebration of all the good things that God has done and only about 15 percent of our hymns in the Baptist and Presbyterian hymnals would it be identified are hymns of lament.

So they are disproportionately under-represented in our liturgical tradition, in also in our hymns so I said let’s take a look at the more contemporary worship traditions. So I went looked up online for something called CCLI. I don’t know if you know what CCLI is. Every time you project a contemporary worship song on the screen, you have to have a little number at the bottom, CCLI number, but six to eight digits, and I don’t know if you’re supposed to know this but every time you use a contemporary worship song, send it a list of the songs that you sang so that churches keep a record, and once a month, they let CCLI know. So what they do is that every year, after a year they compile all these statistics on the most popular contemporary worship songs. So they publish a list in August of the top 100 worship songs sung, contemporary worship songs sung in a typical American church in the US.

So how many of you say, just like in the Bible, that 40 percent of our contemporary worship songs, the top 100 are songs of lament and about suffering? 40 percent? [mumbles] How about 25 percent? How about 15 percent of our contemporary worship songs? How about 10 percent? Well, about 5 to 10 out of the top 100 Well, about 5 to 10 out of the top 100 contemporary worship songs, you could argue they are lament songs, and I’m just using the word lament in the most generous way as I can think of. [laughter] Song starts off, “I cry out.”

Yes! A lament song. [laughter] It finishes, “I cry out for joy.” No. This is too pathetic. I still have to count it as a lament song. So we’re talking about a disproportional, under-representation of the discipline of lament. I mean, think for a moment the last time you’ve ever heard a sermon series on the Book of Lamentations. Yeah, that’s about right: zero out of a hundred people.

None of us have wrote a sermon series on the Book of Lamentations, we’ve never studied this as a book together, we never sing the songs of lament in the psalms, and so what kind of social imagination, nd so what kind of social imagination, theological ethos? theological ethos? What kind of ecclesio reality have we created with the absence of lament? I would argue that part of the absence of lament has led the American church in particular to an exceptionalism and triumphalism that has been extraordinarily destructive, and we have lacked the spiritual discipline of love and humility expressed through lament and therefore have ended up with this dysfunctional exceptionalism and triumphalism.

So I want to give a little bit of background about the Book of Lamentations and lead you into maybe one practice out of the Book of Lamentations that might help us move forward in the acts of love and humility. We begin with the background that the Book of Lamentations is written in a particular historical context. It’s the fall of Jerusalem, Israel as a nation kind of has fallen apart because of the rebellion and idolatry. God sends judgment and so first the Assyrians come, and then the Babylonians come and they completely laid waste to the nation of Israel.

Jerusalem which is kind of the last stance for Israel is eventually wiped out as well. The Babylonians who conquer Jerusalem decide that they don’t want them to be bothering them anymore so they decide to devastate the entire region, they decide to wipe out the people, they take away–as many of you know–into exile pretty much anybody they think would be able to rebuild that society, that includes the prophets, the priests, the kings, anybody who would [mumbles], education, or who could read or write.

They said we’re gonna take anybody who could kind of rebuild that society, would take them away into exile into Babylon, which of course–as many of you know–is where we encounter the story of Daniel and his friends. So the only ones left in Jerusalem are the widows, the orphans, the sick, the lame, the blind, the most marginalized, and the disenfranchised of that society with the assumption that’s the group that would not be able to rebuild that society. So with that kind of setting of the brokenness of the nation of Israel, the idolatry and disobedience had led them to this completely fractured and destroyed society with very little hope of ever rebuilding their nation once again, and so it is in this context that Jeremiah writes a letter.

And he writes a letter that we find in Chapter 29 of the book of Jeremiah, and he offers two different approaches that he rejects. He says you got a couple of options here and I’m gonna tell you why you can’t follow these options. The first option and given in Jeremiah 29 is the option that Israel would give up, run away and hide, and he says you can’t do this by telling them you don’t have that option. In fact, what you’re supposed to do is continue to live your life even though you lost your homeland, you lost your capital, you’ve lost what you feel like is your identity as God’s people, as God’s chosen people.

Despite all of that, you are still to continue to live life as the chosen people of God. So that’s why you see in verse seven, “Seek the peace and prosperity.” Now every other time you see that phrase in the Bible almost every other time, 99.8 percent of the time, you see the phrase, “Seek the peace.” What city do you always hear Seek the phrase of? Jerusalem, yeah. Consistently, you’ve seen it all over the Bible. Seek the peace of Jerusalem. Makes total sense. Of course, Jerusalem , the heavenly city, David’s city, capital of the Promised Land. But here it says not seek the peace of Jerusalem but seek the peace of? Babylon!

Of all the places to seek the peace of. The most wicked city in the world, the symbol of everything that is wrong with the world. The center of evil, the center of [mumbles], the center of all the things that Israel is supposed to reject, and God still says even though you’re in the most wicked place imaginable for you, you’re still supposed to seek the peace of Babylon. you’re still supposed to seek the peace of Babylon.

In other words, even though you’re in the worst set of circumstances imaginable, you’re not allowed to give up. You’re not allowed to shed off your identity and say I’m no longer this. I can just go away and hide and bury my head in the sand, even in the worst set of circumstances imaginable, you are still called to be God’s people, you are not allowed to give up. Now here’s the problem though when we kinda bring this reality into the 20th century, that in American church history, one of the best things that we’d be able to do as a church is give up, quite frequently and quite often. And that has been a pattern of behavior for the church in America: to give up when things are difficult.

When challenging circumstances arise, we have a tendency to give up. I’ll give you an example of this. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th century, In the 17th, 18th, and 19th century, American cities had a very positive perception. In fact, you can imagine the words of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts who pulls up into the Massachusetts Bay, looks over what will be the city of Boston, and he says what, I envision a city set on a hill. He envisions in the United States or in the Americas, these cities that are going to be new Jerusalems and new Zions.

And that narrative continues into the 17th and 18th century but it changes in the 19th century, because these cities that have been populated with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants begins to get an influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans, and they’re not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, they’re Italian Catholics, they’re Greek Orthodox, they’re Eastern European Jews. And all of a sudden, the cities that for hundreds of years in American history, were seen as cities set on a hill, are now Babylons. are now Babylons. No longer Jerusalem, but Babylons.

I read through a number of denominational journals around this time and one of the journals said, “Our cities have become caves of rum and Romanism.” so you see how the language is changing there. Cities are great places where the gospel is gonna go forth to now cities are caves of rum and Romanism. One factor in the 19th century but in the 19th and into 20th century another factor arises, that second factor is not immigration but the great migration. The movement of African Americans from the southern states into the northern and north-eastern states. After Emancipation Proclamation, most of the African Americans are still living in the Mississippi Delta, the larger percentage. Now one of the more interesting things about that group in the Mississippi Delta, is that within a generation post-slavery and post Emancipation Proclamation, an extraordinary percentage, it’s hard to actually name the numbers, but estimates from 70 to 90 percent of African Americans at the end of that generation post-Emancipation confess and profess Christianity.

They are starting churches, they are starting denominations, they’re starting a powerful spiritual renewal that occurs within the African American community right after Emancipation Proclamation. That community starts to move out of the south into places like Chicago, Detroit, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

So now you’re getting the influx in not only of Southern and Eastern Europeans, you’re getting the influx of African Americans into these major urban centers. And I gotta remind you, that these are fired-up Pentecostals and Baptists and Methodists. These are fired-up revivalistic Christians that move into these urban centers and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants don’t see these African Americans as our brothers and sisters who come to revive our cities, they see them as a threat.

And so that white Anglo-Saxon Protestant population in these urban centers, whereas as the African Americans move into Chicago, Detroit, engage in what we now call “white flight”, moving out of the city into the suburbs, leaving urban centers, moving into the suburbs, and that becomes the narrative of American Christianity, let’s run away and hide.

And one of the best examples of this is the architecture that begins to develop around this time. Now there’s a number that shows that in 1945, about 20 to 25 million dollars was spent in the entire United States on new church buildings. That’s probably what saddleback cost in one of their small buildings. So we have 20, 25 million dollars spent in the entire US on new church buildings. By 1960, 15 years later, just 15 years later, that number goes up to one billion dollars on new church buildings. Why?

Because whites are leaving the urban centers and moving out into the suburbs, and building new church buildings in the suburbs. Now the dominant form of architecture is actually something that looks like this. If you go to a church that was built in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and even into the 1970s, you’ll see sanctuaries that look like this.

Maybe not in California, but in the Midwest and in the East Cost, you see a lot of suburban churches with sanctuaries with a slanted roof with a little bit of an arch on the side. Now I was a ten-year-old at a building dedication of a building that looked exactly like this. And even as a ten-year-old I knew this is a really stupid idea.

I don’t know who came up with this design but it was a really, really bad idea. So I’m sitting there in February as a church building is being dedicated, and I’m freezing because where does all the hot air go in a building like that? Right up into the rafters you have the frozen chosen literally on the ground and all the hot air up there, and you’re asking the question, “Who made this architecture and made the building look like this?!”

And the pastor get up as he’s dedicating the building “It was my idea to build the building like this.” And he says imagine this entire building turned upside down and what are you looking at when you see this building upside down? Now you’re looking at the bottom of a boat. Now where in the Bible do you learn about a really big boat? [laughter] Noah’s Ark! Of course, Noah’s Ark! That’s where you read about a really big boat. Now think with me what the church is saying to the world when you say the church is Noah’s Ark? We don’t care about the world out there. We want you to be destroyed by the flood waters in judgment of God. We’re safe in Noah’s Ark, and we’ve got everything we need right here in Noah’s Ark.

You’ve got your secular art, we’ve got our Christian art. You’ve got your secular music, we’ve got our mediocre Christian music. You’ve got your secular coloring books, we’ve got to have Christian coloring books. Secular underwear? We’ll make Christian underwear. We’ll have everything that’s out there in the secular realm, we’ll create a Christianized version of it. Now how do you do evangelism out of Noah’s Ark? Very, very poorly. [laughter]

Cause Uncle Joe floats by and, of course, Uncle Joe. He’s family, he’s gonna fit right in, let’s bring him on board. He’s not gonna disrupt how we do things, he likes the food that we eat, he claps on the right beat, he’s the type of person we want on Noah’s Ark. But your neighbor floats by and you say, wait a minute. He borrowed my mower last week, didn’t give it back, and also his kind of culture is just not gonna fit here.

We don’t have the kind of food he likes, we don’t have the kind of music he likes, we’re gonna have to change things if this person comes on our ark. So maybe there’s an ark down the street that’s more for his kind of person, for his kind of people. And that has led, of course, to this extreme segregation in the church. Because we saw ourselves not as light to the world but we saw ourselves as Noah’s Ark, hiding and protecting ourselves from the evil world.

We’re not allowed to give up because what’s happening here in this kind of approach is the absence of love, that in the midst of changes instead of becoming venues and aspects of love, we’re actually in fear of the change that is going on around us, rather than becoming the conduits of love. And that’s what happening right now in the 21st century as well, especially in the area of immigration. Instead of responding with love and saying, this is a great opportunity to be the conduits of love for the gospel, we’re terrified at these numbers, that in 1965 the immigration laws changed and with it came the influx of non-white immigrants into the United States. This is a very real scenario because prior to 1965, there were very clear laws about who was allowed to come into the US. The first of these laws was called, “The Chinese Exclusion Act.”

Can anybody guess what that did? [laughter] They weren’t hiding the fact here! they were trying to exclude Chinese people with the Chinese Exclusion Act, that was pretty clear what they’re trying to do. So these sets of laws said we only want Europeans. We don’t want Chinese, we don’t want Asians, we don’t want Latin Americans. 1965 changes that, so you get this influx, so that by 2008, a third of the US population is now ethnic minority.

By 2011, half of the births in the US are now of non-European descent. By 2023, just a few years from now, half of all the children in America are going to be of non-European descent. By 2042, all of the United States population will have no clear majority. Now what I want you to do when you look at those last three numbers is to see that they are linked together. 2011 leads to 2023, 2023 leads to 2042, 2011 leads to 2023, 2023 leads to 2042, meaning that the browning of America is not linked to immigration, it’s linked to birth rates.

So no matter how big of a wall Trump gets to get Mexico to build for us, it’s not gonna change a thing! It’s not gonna change a thing cause this has everything to do with birth rates and nothing to do with actual immigration patterns. This is about the browning of America and instead of responding in love and joy and excitement about what God is doing and saying, how can we be conduits of love to a generation of young people that is changing? We said that we’re actually gonna respond with fear and God’s says we’re not allowed to do that, we don’t have that option. The second option that comes up is in Jeremiah the very next sentence in Chapter 29, verses eight through nine, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you.”

The keyword there is prophet and divination, very specific language. very specific language. The practice of divination was one of the major magic arts practices of the Babylonian people. The idea of divination was you can get exactly what you want by following the magic formula And so the temptation here is not to give up and run away and hide, the temptation here is to give in and say we’re just gonna do what the culture does.

We’re gonna give in and just do what everybody else is doing around us, and we’re gonna gain worldly power, we’re gonna gain worldly authority, and we’re going to–in the absence of humility– take on the powers of what’s going on around us, and use those powers for the good of the kingdom, but we’re gonna use those powers. Now this is interesting to me because in things like church groups and then things like ministry, especially global ministry, we tend to follow this pattern a little bit more.

Quick example: I went away on sabbatical for a year, came back and I was away from my office, we moved to North Carolina, I came back, there were huge piles of junk mail for me when I got back to my office after a year away. Ironically, a lot of them from environmental agencies asking me to save the planet. So I’ve got these huge piles of junk mail and I’m going through all of them, I stumble across an interesting DVD. The cover says, ” ‘The Poor You Will Not Have With You’ Jesus Says.” No, the cover actually said, yeah, “The Poor You Will Not Have With You.”

And I thought, wait, that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus actually said, “The poor you will have with you.” And I thought, this is great. Cause these are the kind of things that professors and preachers love, you can use them as illustrations at conferences like this. So I went through and I looked through the material, and I said, why is this person, who is writing a DVD and material for a major Christian relief organization telling me something opposite of what scripture says? “The poor you will not have with you.”

The idea was that we need to confront extreme poverty, and which I would agree with, absolutely! As Christians, we are too apathetic about extreme poverty, we need to confront extreme poverty. The problem was the way we were going to address extreme poverty was if the American church used it’s ingenuity and know-how and knowledge and wisdom, and all the good things that the American church has, and dump it over there into those poor people in Africa. So we were gonna use our American know-how, the American church was gonna take the responsibility to go over there and fix Africa’s problems.

Which ironically is how Africa got it’s problems in the first place, when the European colonists said hey! Let’s go and fix Africa. Let’s give them our civilization, let’s give them our literature, let’s give them our whatever we have, and let’s dump it over there in Africa which has caused a lot of the problems of extreme poverty now. And now we have Christian relief organizations say now the American church is gonna go fix Africa’s problems for them.

And here we’re taking the attempts by the world, and taking them and using them on the absence of humility, the absence of humility So in our absence of lament, we have the absence of love, and the absence of humility, and this is where I want to move towards how then do we move towards a lamentation practice? A lament practice that allows us to re-engage the narratives of love and humility which are absent in our practices right now. I’ll close with this one final challenge out of the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations is fascinating because it’s really hard to tell who actually wrote the Book of Lamentations.

Now in all possibility, it’s probably Jeremiah because Jeremiah is one of the very few folks who were left behind who could actually read or write. So clearly this was really well thought out but the type of writing that Lamentations is is radically different from the Book of Jeremiah. It’s like Shakespeare and Tupac, both are great poets, but they’re very different styles of poetry. So you have these two very different styles in Jeremiah and Lamentations, and it’s so it’s saying there’s no way Jeremiah wrote Lamentation cause the styles are so different. But what is turns out is that I believe that Lamentations is Jeremiah, who goes to the town square and hears all the voices of the suffering, the ones who have suffered the most.

And especially, he hears the voices of women, and Lamentations is probably the most feminine book of the Bible maybe even more that Ruth or Esther. Lamentations is the most feminine book of the Bible and what Jeremiah does is instead of hearing the voices and speaking the voices of the privileged, he is speaking the voices of the marginalized. It’s one of the rare occasions in scriptures cause in scriptures oftentimes you will hear the voices of the privileged. We’ll hear David and we’ll hear the great heroes and Paul, but here we hear the voices of the marginalized and that’s one of the challenges of actual engagement of the discipline of lament.

How well are you hearing the voices of the marginalized? Not the voices of the privileged that speak of the marginalized, but the actual voices of the marginalized, the actual voices of the suffering. And my challenge to you today would be, if we were missing the discipline of lament, maybe one of the first places we re-engage lament is by hearing the voices, not only the privileged and not only of the privileged speaking about the suffering, but the voices of the suffering themselves.